|A novel with no e.|
There are plenty of examples of writers who’ve produced great stuff by imposing restrictions on themselves. Beckett wrote in French to stop himself giving in to his facility with English. The French classical dramatists interpreted the ‘rules’ of Aristotle very tightly and had to write in Alexandrines and stick to the 3 unities. But their constraints were easy to cope with compared with the things the members of a group called Oulipo do. I’d vaguely heard about them before but was reminded of them when I listened to a BBC podcast. It seems writing’s not hard enough, so they impose artificial constraints to make it even trickier.
The name comes from a French expression meaning ‘workshop for potential literature’. (It could only be French, couldn’t it?) The group’s been going for fifty-odd years and you can only join if you’re invited to. If you ask to become a member, that guarantees that you never will. Mind you, when you hear the sort of restrictions they impose on themselves, you’ll probably decide a visit to the supermarket or a few hours spent staring at a wall would be a better way to spend your time.
I’d heard of Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, which doesn’t have the letter ‘e’ in it. What I didn’t know was that it had been translated into English by Gilbert Adair (again with no ‘e’s). Perec then used all those ‘e’s that he’d ‘saved’ to write a novella called Les Revenentes which uses ‘e’ but no other vowels. A Canadian poet, Christian Bök, has written a lipogram that uses only one vowel in each of its five chapters. Michel Thaler wrote a novel with no verbs in it. And so it goes on. One poet, whose name I’ve forgotten, wrote a book of ten sonnets whose pages were cut in such a way that you can create any 14-line sequence you like out of them. To see what he meant, imagine those kids’ books which have a head, body and legs on 3 separate segments of the page so that you can create different combinations by matching the different heads, bodies and feet. The mathematical permutations when you have 10 poems of 14 lines each are such that it’s effectively a book you can never finish reading.
|A novel using a single vowel - e.|
The theory is that this triggers ideas, inspiration, and forces you to ‘think outside the box’ (apologies for such a gross cliché). But, apart from it being an entertaining sort of game to play for one’s own amusement or a way of saying to the world ‘Look how clever I am’, it’s hard to warm to the idea. I think imposing restrictions is valuable. I often get students to remove all the adjectives and adverbs from a piece to show them how it affects the narrative tone and pace and, indeed, changes meanings, but these arbitrary and very severe restrictions seem to work against full creativity. You may produce something which obeys all the rules but I can’t help but think that, in doing so, you must surely have had to discard insights and images that would have added to the message you were conveying. It’s form taking precedence over meaning, and the two shouldn’t (and can’t, in my book) be separated.
The one exception I’ve found to that in my own experience is the Fibonacci poem. I’m not a poet but there’s a beauty and mysterious naturalness about ‘Fibs’, as their devotees call them, which is very beguiling. They’re based on the Fibonacci sequence (which is the thing behind the arrangement of sunflower seeds, the whirl on a snail’s shell, etc.) The sequence of numbers is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on. Each number is the sum of the previous two. The poems consist of a first and second line with one syllable each, the third then has two, the fourth three and so on.
You can write as many lines as you like and even reverse the sequence, which creates interesting shapes on the page too. Mind you, it can draw you into pretentiousness. I wrote some for my own amusement and to try to exploit those shapes. However, rather than expose myself to your derision, I won't quote them here. (I may be pretentious but I’m NOT a poet.)
|The sequence in nature|
In keeping with the mystical nature of the Fibonacci sequence, it’s strange how applying it to metre does seem to produce a natural rhythm. Try it. In a way, it helps you to see and feel how having to work to strict rules can also be liberating.
It is a tube universally acknowledged, that a single mandala in possession of a good founder, must be in want of a wildebeest.
I'm probably insensitive or something but I don't really see how that serves any purpose.